One of the most intriguing things about old menus from San Quentin State Prison is that they were saved as mementos. The legendary prison, situated on the north side of San Francisco Bay, was established to hold miscreants during the Gold Rush. Over the years, it has grown large enough to warrant two ZIP codes—one for inmates (94974) and one for Point San Quentin Village (94964), an adjacent community originally built to house the prison’s employees and their families. The menus mostly come from the period between 1928, shortly after the East Block opened (now described as a crumbling, leaky maze) and 1940. A dozen menus and related ephemera take us back to this bygone era when the guards enjoyed the gustatory pleasures of the table.
The menus were printed by the San Quentin Press. This nicely-embossed example from Christmas 1928 shows all three meals of the day.
Menus occasionally contain other types of ephemera—this one had a misplaced commissary statement that belonged to the resident dentist.
A week later, the captive printing shop printed another elaborate menu for the officers’ and guards’ dining room on New Years Day.
The everyday menus were typed on thin onionskin paper. Two scarce survivors from March 1929 show a typical breakfast and dinner in the guards’ mess. The dinner includes dishes like Hungarian goulash, German pot roast, and Lyonnais potatoes.
On September 9 of that year, a fine menu was printed for Admission Day, the annual holiday commemorating California’s admission to the Union in 1850.1 An inscription informs us that the California Grays Band played a concert and that lunch was “Marvelous!”
Meanwhile, back in New York, traders on Wall Street were becoming worried as stock prices drifted downward, reversing the ever-upward trend of the previous nine years. In late October, a series of severe market crashes ushered in the Great Depression. Still, life on the inside continued much as it had before. The most anticipated event of the year occurred on New Years Day, when vaudeville performers and other show business celebrities trouped over from San Francisco to entertain the inmates. A lavish 20-page souvenir program was printed for the show in 1932. The cover and center pages with the names of the performers are shown below.
The dinner on New Years Day was dubbed “The Feast of the Thespians.” Despite the glitzy name, the simple menu and modest fare suggests that the prisoners partook in at least some version of this meal. The menus from 1932 and 1934 are shown below.
In February 1932, the guards celebrated Chinese New Years with a themed dinner. The bill of fare includes popular standards like chicken chop suey and foo yoon hai, a Chinese-Indonesian term for egg foo young. Coagulated bean cakes and lotus cakes are now called mooncakes. This menu includes a music program.
Despite the charm of the above menu, there were times when the guards’ job was decidedly unpleasant, such as when they had to drag a condemned man kicking and screaming to the gallows. And San Quentin was also a dangerous place to work. In 1936, four convicts with guns violently broke into the warden’s home while he and the prison board were eating lunch. Taking some of the trustees as hostages, the prisoners escaped the grounds by car but were soon recaptured after a gun battle. One of the escapees was killed in the skirmish; two others were later executed. The following year, Humphrey Bogart starred in “San Quentin,” a formulated movie that further cemented the reputation of the prison in the public mind.
Normally, the rhythm of activities was highly predictable and on occasion, even enjoyable. Baseball has been played at San Quentin since the early 1900s; it is still one of the few prisons that plays hardball teams from the outside. In August 1938, San Quentin played Al’s “Clothiers” Baseball Club. After the game, the visiting team was feted in the guards’ dining room.
The dinners on these occasions were feasts that included steaks to order. On September 11 of that year, San Quentin hosted Bill Morebeck’s Chinn-Beretta Baseball Club of Sacramento.
By the late 1930s, special menus were seemingly printed for all of the legal holidays. The menu for Armistice Day in 1940 is shown below.
Special menus stopped being printed soon after the U.S. entered the Second World War. Perhaps the social life of the staff community was affected when able-bodied guards joined the armed services, or maybe the change came about after Clinton Duffy was appointed warden in 1940. Duffy implemented many reforms at the prison, including the improvement of food services for the inmates. For whatever reason, the culinary paper trail ends at about this time.
1. My thanks to Robert Brower for identifying the state holiday.